Terry Prone: It’s nothing personal, but I’ve no time for passive-aggressive talk

'Nothing personal' is one of the phrases that should be banned from every workplace. It is meaningless, while being offensive to staff on the receiving end

18th Mar 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

The best thing about a bank holiday is that even if you don’t want to watch a parade, it still gives you three full days away from the irritating person in the office. Or, if that irritating person is a high 10 on the scale of maddening, three full days to recover from their latest onslaught.

I hadn’t thought about this until the “nothing personal” episode. Here’s the story: These two women worked together, maybe eight or nine years ago. They were clever, accomplished, able women who loathed each other.

The slightly older one worked in a different division of their company, so avoidance of each other was possible for a long time. But then circumstances crushed the two divisions into one, so B now reported to A. The phrase “all hell broke loose” is tempting, but does not apply, because all hell breaking loose implies explosion, destruction of those near to it, and shrapnel wounds to those a little further away.

This wasn’t like that. This was a subtle country mile away from that. Extroverted A would gently mock introverted B when calling on B to contribute at meetings, which would fluster B, who would over-answer any question, spurred into near-incoherence by A’s ironically raised eyebrow. Then A would make a decision which nine times out of 10 went against B’s recommendation.

That, in itself, didn’t matter that much, because B tended to fade throughout the meeting and be briefly glad of any decision that would obviate the need for her to speak again. What made it matter, what made it memorable, was the slithering dismissal on the part of A, using phrases like: “We can’t afford to spend time on irrelevancies.”

B got the hell out of the company, largely because she couldn’t stick working for A and because a great opportunity arose elsewhere. A year of ease and comfort ended when adventitious factors brought the two of them back together in the new company, although this time, B was the senior. This may have caused A to ring her as soon as she accepted the job offer, to acknowledge that they hadn’t been each other’s best buddies in the past.

“I just wanted you to know that there was nothing personal in it,” was A’s conclusion to the conversation, which drove B even further around the bend, because, as she remarked: “What the hell kind of a point is that? It’s OK to implicitly denigrate a colleague’s judgment by blowing right past their advice, as long as you claim you weren’t out to get them personally?”

“Nothing personal” is one of the phrases that should be banned from the workplace. It is meaningless while being offensive.

It is never a statement on which to build a good working relationship. It reinforces a bad power relationship and is extremely difficult to combat, if you’re on the receiving end.

It’s up there with “no offence” as weaponry that isn’t seen as weaponry by the perpetrator, while the person offended is left chewing the inside of their cheek as they try to find a way to say just how offensive it actually was without being told they’re being too sensitive altogether.

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